Early Edition: November 11, 2020

A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours.

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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.

US DEVELOPMENTS

The Ukrainian criminal investigation into Joe Biden over allegations that he improperly forced the 2016 firing of the country’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, has been closed, a probe that President Trump pressured and which led to Trump’s impeachment proceedings after being accused of using government power to persuade Ukraine to help him discredit his Democratic political rivals. Shokin claimed that Biden had pressured Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko to get rid of Shokin for investigating the oil and gas extraction company Burisma, where Biden’s son Hunter was until 2019 on the board of directors. Ukrinform news agency published a statement yesterday from the country’s National Police that said there was no evidence of wrongdoing on Biden’s behalf. “After interrogation, we found out that in 2016 Shokin resigned from his post voluntarily,” the statement read, adding, “During the investigation we did not find any confirmation anyone pressured him to resign.” Veronika Melkozerova reports for NBC News.

Following Trump’s firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday, a number of Pentagon officials have resigned, leading to Trump loyalists being promoted to fill the senior roles. Among those reported by the Pentagon as resigning were: James Anderson, the acting undersecretary for policy; Joseph Kernan, the undersecretary for intelligence; and Jen Stewart, Esper’s chief of staff — although the Pentagon’s statement said Kernan had intended to resign for several months. Retired Army Gen. Anthony Tata will replace Anderson; Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Defense Department official and former aide to Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn, will replace Kernan; and Kash Patel, the former National Security Council (NSC) senior director and former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), will replace Stewart. Democrats have said the Pentagon restructure raises national security concerns as President-elect Joe Biden begins his transition to power. Dartunorro Clark reports for NBC News.

Former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe yesterday defended the bureau’s “Crossfire Hurricane” probe into Trump’s campaign links to Russian and its later investigation into whether Trump had himself obstructed the investigation — following attempts yesterday by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to spotlight mistakes made in the investigation — restating that in early 2017 the bureau had reason to believe that Trump himself was a threat to US national security. “It became pretty clear to us that he did not want us to continue investigating what the Russians had done,” McCabe said, further adding, “We had many reasons at that point to believe that the president might himself pose a danger to national security and that he might have engaged in obstruction of justice, if the firing of the director and those other things were geared towards eliminating or stopping our investigation of Russian activity.” Matt Zapotosky reports for the Washington Post.

Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday insisted that Trump should refrain from firing CIA Director Gina Haspel amid growing contempt by the president for Haspel’s refusal to action his demands related to the Russian investigation. Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), the chair of the committee, insisted that there was no reason for Haspel to be ousted and that her continued leadership was “good for the stability of the agency,” particularly during the current transition to Biden’s administration. Rubio’s sentiments were mirrored by Sen. John Cornyn (TX) and others. Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO.

The Republican-led Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday proposed a $696 billion Pentagon spending bill for this fiscal year, which includes $627.2 billion for the base defense budget, and $68.7 billion for a war fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations account. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

The Staten Island man who over the weekend made threats against Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and the FBI over the election results has been arrested, federal prosecutors confirmed yesterday. The man in question, Brian Maiorana, took to social media on the weekend in response to Biden’s victory, citing the reactionary anti-government novel “The Turner Diaries,” threatening to “blow up” an FBI building and directed threats at the “the Jew Senator from Jew York,” apparently referring to Schumer. Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of video-sharing app TikTok, yesterday filed a petition with a US appeals court requesting an extension to the administration’s divestiture deadline, arguing that the government’s move to force a hasty TikTok deal was “arbitrary and capricious” and denied the company due process provided by law. Georgia Wells reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Five key takeaways from yesterday’s US Supreme Court hearing on the Affordable Care Act are provided by Josh Gerstein for POLITICO.

PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN: TRANSITION OF POWER AND ALLEGED VOTER FRAUD

President-elect Joe Biden continues to be prevented from accessing Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) intel reports before the General Services Administration (GSA) affirms his victory — and has also been blocked by President Trump from accessing the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the intelligence reports sent to senior US officials, which could easily be authorized by Trump. The ODNI told NBC News that it will not interact with Biden until GSA Administrator Emily Murphy signs a letter of “ascertainment,” the formal recognition of Biden’s win. Biden, commenting on his inability to access the daily briefs, said that although it would be “nice” to have them, it’s “not critical.” Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe’s decision to withhold intel has been criticized, with former senior CIA official Larry Pfeiffer contending that: “All it would take is a presidential head-nod to make it happen. It’s in the interest of national security for Biden to receive the full PDB — this was done in 2000 for George Bush even as election challenges continued. There would be little risk in extending this courtesy to a former vice president who received the PDB for eight years.” As former presidential nominee, Joe did receive candidate briefings, but these lack the same detail provided in the PDB. Ken Dilanian and Mike Memoli report for NBC News.

The White House Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) has continued to vet for new official appointments for a second Trump term, according to two sources who have knowledge of the matter, despite the reality that there will more than likely not be a second term for Trump. John McEntree, who heads the PPO, is apparently still contacting listed referees and conducting background checks on appointees who were down as potentially starting new positions next year, when, in fact, Trump will no longer be in office come late January. Asawin Suebsaeng reports for the Daily Beast.

Biden has launched his agency review teams which are responsible for coordinating the handover of power at federal agencies, although currently blocked from accessing the agencies due to the GSA’s refusal to affirm his victory. Leaders in charge of the coordinated handover include: Ur Mendoza Jaddou, who will lead the team at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Leandra English at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Cecilia Martinez at the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and Gary Gensler leading on the Federal Reserve and banking and securities regulators. Alex Thompson, Theodoric Meyer and Megan Cassella report for POLITICO.

A comprehensive list of the experts that will lead on Biden’s transition at federal agencies is provided by Lisa Rein for the Washington Post. Officials include: Andrea Flores​ for the DHS; Michelle Howard​ for the Department of Defense (DOD); Justin Jackson for the CIA; Geoffrey Roth for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); and Linda Thomas-Greenfield for the State Department.

Many Democratic House committee chairs have demanded that the White House and federal agencies preserve all records amid the highly contentious transition of power period. The chairs sent a joint letter to over 50 federal agencies and departments, urging them to comply with relevant preservation federal law and regulations and to preserve records that could later be the target of congressional subpoenas or investigations. Nick Niedzwiadek reports for POLITICO.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday promised “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” His comment was made during a briefing and was in response to a Fox News reporter’s question about whether the State Department is planning to work with Biden’s transition team, in Pompeo implied that the battle between Trump and Biden was not yet over, mirroring similar sentiments of Trump’s that all legal votes need to be counted. Pompeo was also asked whether a delay in transition could raise potential national security concerns or impede a straightforward transition of power — but he avoided answering that question, instead suggesting that a transition may not be needed at all. He did attempt to provide some assurance to the public, stating: “The world should have every confidence that the transition necessary to make sure that the State Department is functional today, successful today and successful with the president who’s in office on January 20th, a minute after noon, will also be successful.” Nahal Toosi and Quint Forgey report for POLITICO.

Pompeo was yesterday criticized by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the outgoing chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for his comments about “legal votes,” in which Engel charged him with playing “along with baseless and dangerous attacks on the legitimacy of last week’s election.” Engel insisted that all Administration officials need to stop their “false claims” about voter fraud and “should release the funding support necessary for a smooth transition that protects our national security.” Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

The US Postal Service (USPS) worker who recently signed an affidavit suggesting that managers in Erie, Pennsylvania had instructed staff to doctor ballots by backdating ones that arrived late has now admitted that such was not true, following an interview with investigators for the USPS Inspector General, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was told yesterday, although investigators said the worker, Richard Hopkins, “did not explain why he signed a false affidavit,” a statement by the committee said. Shawn Boburg and Jacob Bogage report for the Washington Post.

US RELATIONS

The Trump administration has formally notified Congress of its approval of a $23.4 billion arms sale to the UAE, which includes F-35 fighter jets and armed drones, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

A group of senators yesterday urged the State Department to take measures aimed at stopping widespread violations of a UN arms embargo on Libya and ensuring that US-manufactured weapons and equipment are not used in the country’s conflict. In a letter dated Nov. 10, Pompeo, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said the Trump administration had taken “few concrete steps” to enforce the United Nations’ 2011 ban. Missy Ryan reports for the Washington Post.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 10.26 million and killed over 239,600 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has now been over 51.59 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.274 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the US is available at the New York Times.

US and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

A state-by-state guide to lockdown measures and reopenings is provided by the New York Times.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian. 

About the Author(s)

Siven Watt

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter (@SivenWatt)